H-1B Visas Less Than 0.1 Percent of U.S. Workforce: Report

Is there an actual technology skill shortage in the United States, or do companies simply want less expensive H-1B visa workers to complement their largely American-based workforce? A nonprofit immigration advocacy group looks at some of the numbers and attempts to demystify the issues, as it pushes for more visas and green cards. Opponents say if there were a real technology shortage, wages for technology would be rising. They are not.

How many H-1B visa holders are in the U.S. workforce? In fiscal year 2009, 0.06 percent of the national labor force was made up of H-1B visa holders, according to analysis of U.S. immigration data by the nonprofit public policy group the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP). In that same fiscal year, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved a total of 85,133 H-1B visa petitions.
Compared with a national labor force of 154 million, a foreign-based workforce of less than 0.1 percent is not destroying opportunities for American workers, concludes the NFAP, which advocates for increases in annual H-1B visas and green cards. Look at the volume of American companies applying for these visas annually and how quickly the quota is reached, says the organization. At present, there is a cap of 65,000 H-1B visas and an additional 20,000 exemptions for foreign graduate students. The argument is that if there is such high demand, then the cap on visas needs to be expanded.
"Almost all companies that employ H-1B visa holders have a workforce with U.S. workers accounting for 85 percent to 99 percent," said the NFAP report. "The relatively few businesses with more than 15 percent of workers on H-1B visas are 'H-1B dependent' and must adhere to a stricter set of labor rules."
So are H-1B visa holders taking jobs away from Americans? The NFAP does not believe so and seeks to demystify the political nature of the H-1B visa debate in the United States. The organization also seeks to show that Indian-based companies doing business in the United States are a small fraction of the total number of companies using H-1B visas. From the NFAP report:

"USCIS data show in FY 2009, less than 6 percent of new H-1B visas went to Indian technology companies. In identifying 25 India-based firms one finds Indian companies utilized fewer than 5,000 (4,809) new H-1B petitions in FY 2009. Moreover, tracking these same companies over time, one finds that the number of new H-1B visas utilized by Indian technology firms fell by 70 percent between FY 2006 and FY 2009."

Opponents of the H-1B visa program in its current state believe the driving force behind visa adoption is lower-wage technology work masked in "skill shortage" language and loopholes that allow companies exploitative advantages. Prof. Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology supports allowing the best and brightest into United States, but believes the H-1B visa program is rife with issues that undermine the intended goals of the program. Hira supports reform; he wrote in a Businessweek debate column on H-1B visas:

"The H-1B program has been corrupted by a large and growing share of firms that use it for cheap labor and to facilitate the outsourcing of jobs. Gaping loopholes make it very easy and legal to pay below-market wages. In fact, employers admitted to the Government Accountability Office, Congress' watchdog agency, that they use the visas to hire less-expensive foreign workers. And examples of approved H-1B applications show how the program undercuts American workers. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Labor rubber-stamped HCL America's bid to import 75 computer software engineers at $11.88 per hour."

Other opponents of the program point to the laws of supply and demand and wages in technology fields. If there were a real skill shortage, wages would go up, but that has not been the case, they say. Additionally, opponents challenge the idea that the H-1B visa program seeks to fill temporary skill gaps.
"The H-1B program is not temporary, it's ongoing," said Stan Sorscher, legislative director for Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, to SeattlePI.com in 2009. "If you said, literally, 'OK, we can't get the people, we honestly need temporary workers,' then the program could have served its purpose and gone."